March 1, 2011

Sheehan Stanwick Burch: Thornton the Game's Next Great End-to-End Threat?

by Sheehan Stanwick Burch | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Northwestern's latest hidden gem, Taylor Thornton, continues to develop and made her mark with the game-winning goal in overtime against North Carolina.

So far, this season has not disappointed. Though we are only starting the third week of the games, we've seen some teams getting impressive "statement" wins early against high-quality competition. This past week was no different.

One of the biggest match-ups of last week was the Northwestern-UNC game, which was decided in overtime on a goal by Northwestern's Taylor Thornton. As expected, this was a close contest between two regular visitors to final four weekend. The 2011 version of this budding rivalry was a very physical game -- almost 70 fouls and nine yellow cards. You would think that, at some point, that players and coaches would have adjusted to how the game was being called by the officials. On the other hand, perhaps the officials were never able to gain control of the game.

Despite the rough play, this game had a fantastic finish. Taylor Thornton's game-winner came when North Carolina elected to faceguard Shannon Smith, the "big gun" of the Wildcats' offense, in the second overtime period. Thornton's goal was a bit of a surprise, since there are at least five other players that you would expect to take the last shot for Northwestern. Don't get me wrong, Thornton had a stellar freshman year in 2010. However, she is a player that is more known for her speed in the midfield and her defensive abilities than her shooting.

That said, Thornton shot a total of 12 times all of last year, finishing with ­­­five goals. In 2011, Thornton is off to hot start, with three goals on three shots. Northwestern always seems to find a way to maximize the talent of its players and find some hidden gems. If Thornton continues to develop, perhaps she will be the game's next end-to-end threat.

The biggest shock to me of the week, however, was the Syracuse-Virginia game. I am very impressed with the way that Virginia rebounded from its loss to Loyola. Some were questioning how Virginia would fare in 2011, following the graduation of the senior class and the questions concerning the return of players injured in 2010. A lot of these questions were answered in their 21-goal outburst at the Dome.

Conversely, it looks like Syracuse has some work to do. Even Syracuse's steady All-American goalie, Liz Hogan, was pulled in the game. Unfortunately for Syracuse, it looks like the only categories in which it came out on top were fouls (35 to UVA's 10) and yellow cards (five to UVA's none). The bright spot for The Orange is that they have a lot of talent, and freshman Katie Webster had a mega game with six goals and two assists. I have no doubt Gary Gait will get them back on track.

Lastly, on Saturday, I traveled to College Park to watch No. 1-ranked Maryland take on No. 4-ranked Duke. Although Maryland won 18-11, it was a much closer game (or more accurately, a much closer first half). The first half featured some of the most exciting lacrosse I have seen -- great back and forth action, hustle and lots of scoring.

For the first 25 minutes of the half, I felt Duke had the upper hand, and it seemed like the Blue Devils were winning the possession battle. However, Maryland closed out the first half with two goals in the last 40 seconds and continued that momentum right into the second half.

Duke simply ran out of steam.

Kerstin Kimel's succinct post-game comments summarized the loss for Duke. "We had a great week of preparation and, from a game-plan perspective, I thought there were a lot of great things we did on the field," Kimel said. "We gave up two momentum goals in my opinion. Obviously the first half was really competitive, but to give up two goals in under 40 seconds, that's hard."

Kimel also told me that she felt that the offense was tentative in the second half, and that Duke's players did not maintain the same level of focus from the first half.

Duke did hold a slight edge in draw controls, and I was very impressed with Kat Thomas' ability to corral the draw, as well as her overall impact on all aspects of the game. Although Maryland's Karri Ellen Johnson did not totally dominate on the draw (as she routinely does), she is still so fun to watch. Cathy Reese, Maryland's head coach, summed it up best when she said, "We see her in practice every day, we know what she likes to do, and we can't even stop her."

History points to another meeting between Duke and Maryland in 2011, in either the ACC or NCAA tournaments. Disappointed that an opportunity for a big win slipped through its hands this time, I suspect that Duke will be motivated to play a more complete game in their next matchup.

For those of you interested in hearing more about the exciting finish to the Northwestern-UNC game and previews of the games to come, check out the podcast with Matt DaSilva and me on Wednesday.

Sheehan Stanwick Burch, a former four-time All-American player at Georgetown University who went on to play for the U.S. Elite team, is a college women's lacrosse analyst for CBS College Sports. Check back to each week throughout the season for columns and podcasts.

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